I just stood there at first. Moo had broken a beer bottle over a trashcan and stood brandishing the sharp and ragged edges at the white boy who’ I’m sure didn’t notice because he and his friends just kept on laughing, eating, and drinking all the same.
Moo looked even smaller standing there in front of that big picture window. And those big white boys looked larger than life, like they were being projected on a movie screen.
“You ready, Soup?”
“Let’s do this!”
I knew not to hesitate because Moo definitely would have called me on it.
“Wait. You holdin’, right?”
“You holdin’? You said you was holdin’, Soup?”
“You ain’t holdin’? I thought you wuz—?”
I was already pissed because he had made it seem like I was standing in his way. But where on earth did Moo ever get the idea that I was holding? I had never seen a gun, and certainly I hadn’t mentioned one to him.
Anyway, I was more than a little relieved when Freddie Banks turned up and, for the most part, took over.
“Yo, yo! AjaMOO? Soup? What’s up?”
“I’m ’bout to teach this white boy a lesson!” fired Moo.
Freddie appealed to me, but I stayed quiet and intense. Moo had asked me if I was “ready” about ten times, and I had convinced myself that I was, even though the two of us and all the broken beer bottles in the world didn’t stand a chance against those hulking white boys.
“Use your head, brother. A third of us brothers are already in jail,” continued Freddie.
“I ain’t tryin’ to hear that! You ready, Soup?”
“I’m just saying that this is neither the time nor the place. Let’s deal with it at another time at another place.” Freddie was practically pleading.
“You know I ain’t wit’ dat non-violence shit, Freddie!”
“I am, AjaMOO?”
Even though Moo and I sometimes clowned Freddie by comparing him to Martin Luther King, it was because of his prominent forehead, not because of his political stance.
Freddie, who was president of the Black Students Organization (BSO), was actually an avowed Pan-Africanist and Garvey-ite.
I’m not sure if he had spied the police car at the corner (or whether Moo had), but at least Freddie managed to calm Moo down.
“Yeah, Freddie, we cool. But it ain’t over!”
“That’s cool with me,” Freddie agreed. And then Moo turned to me.
“You ready, Soup?”
* * *
Before I could make heads or tails, Moo snatched a couple of books off my desk and pounced on my bed. I sat in the fetal position on the floor, propped against the bed’s edge. I was trying to fit a class at Barnard into my spring schedule when he shoved Giovanni’s Room in my face.
“Soup, you readin’ this gay stuff?”
“I haven’t finished it yet.”
“Listen to this: ‘Oh, women! There is no need, thank heaven, to have an opinion about women. Women are like water. They are tempting like that, and they can be that treacherous, and they can seem that bottomless, you know?—and they can be that shallow. And that dirty.’ Baldwin wrote some misogynist crap, man. And you know if Wright or (oh, no!) Ishmael wrote anything like this, these women out here would be callin’ him misogynist all over the place, but they don’t say nothin’ ’bout Baldwin, do they?”
“’Cause he was gay?”
I’d asked a bit too innocently.
“Yeah, Soup, ‘cause he was gay’!”
It was just like Moo first to make me feel self-conscious about reading the book, and then to have already read it himself, but then he had to go and perhaps catch something that I hadn’t.
I tried to conceal what I was doing on the floor because I knew he would make a big deal out of that too, but he caught me off guard when I thought he wasn’t paying attention to me anymore.
His immediate reaction was to bust up laughing.
“What’s so funny?”
“You, Soup. I know why you takin’ that class.”
“You know why!”
Even though his politics wouldn’t let him admit it, Moo liked that I was a “dog.” He had seen me in action once, when I left him chasing after me to follow a big-booty girl into a midtown dentist’s office. When he caught up to me, I had already made a date with her and was currently making an appointment to get my teeth cleaned with the receptionist. When Moo asked me if I was really going to get them cleaned, it occurred to me that they could use a good cleaning, so I said, “Yeah, sure.” Moo howled so loudly and struck me with such force that the receptionist became noticeably afraid.
He was, for the most part, right about the Barnard class, and we shared a good laugh over that. It was the first one that we had shared all day, a day that was unusually tense between us, in part because of the incident, but also because it was the last day of winter break, and he seemed to be bothered by that.
“What you got to eat, Soup?”
“You got some money?”
* * *
We ended up at the Cuban restaurant that he had, in fact, turned me onto. We ordered the “broke college Negro special,” oversized bowls of black bean soup with white rice, tall glasses of ice water with lemon, and, because Moo insisted, bottomless baskets of toasted buttered bread. As was usually the case concerning Moo and me, the waitress favored me because of my manner, which could be described as gentlemanly, and because I had some Spanish. On the other hand, she dreaded seeing Moo because of his frankness, which was most often interpreted as obnoxiousness. Since I always paid, I tried to compensate for everything by over-tipping a dollar or so.
“Just go ’head and bring us two baskets, Señora,” Moo insisted, “You know we gon’ have more than one.”
“Por favor, corazón, por favor. Hoy no estoy de humor.”
First Moo responded to her: “MOOCH-ASS-GRASS-EE-ASS!”
Then to me: “What she say, Soup?”
“She said, ‘I hate your black ass!’”
Every so often I could shock Moo by saying something he considered out of character for me. I liked being able to do that, and I liked that we were clowning.
Moo: “So you gon’ take that class, huh?”
Me: “‘You down wit’ OPP? Yeah, you know me!’”
Moo: “You know who teachin’ it, right? Aurora—”
Me: “Man, there’s gon’ be beaucoup babes up in that piece!”
“So you doin’ the rainbow thing, Soup?”
“‘I don’t discriminate; I regulate every shade of dat azz!’”
Moo dropped his head in his food after that.
“I’m gon’ miss you, Soup.”
“Miss me? I’m goin’ somewhere?”
“Break’s over tomorrow.”
“So, it’s gon’ be different between us!”
He continued to eat with his head down.
* * *
Moo and I had spent every day together during winter break. Seemed like everyone else either had gone home or someplace impressive like the Caribbean or skiing in the Swiss Alps. Moo crashed at my apartment, which was off-campus, almost every night because the dorms were closed (I assumed). At that point I assumed he was moving back in, and, for whatever reason, he felt that things would be different.
We had been at Columbia for 3½ years and never once met, and I was feeling already that (outside of Vee) he was my closest friend. I thought he was feeling the same way about me, so I was a little surprised, and even a little hurt, that he was pulling away even though what he was saying, in a way, went for me too.
The truth is I didn’t want Moo at my place that night because I was sure Vee would return, and I didn’t want to deal with either’s reaction. Simply put, Moo would have seen her as a “dumb white girl,” and Vee would have thought him a jerk.
When he did leave I began to feel less certain about Vee, whether she would show up at all, so instead of going home, I headed ‘down’ to Harlem.
* * *
Overlooking Harlem, Columbia felt like a Camelot, a vast, rich kingdom among the clouds. (Though at night, with its tall iron gates shut tight, it more closely resembled a fortress.)
“Don’t go down there!” That’s what we were told during orientation. Nevertheless, I went as soon as I got my chance and I paid for it.
I learned later that it was an old scam those cats pulled on me. A dude with a thick, Caribbean-sounding accent and in a near hysterical state approached me, saying that his ship was docked in the harbor for the day and that he didn’t know where to go, but more importantly, he didn’t know what to do with his money. He showed me a thick wad of cash that I imagined was thousands of dollars. I can’t recall exactly, as he was talking so fast, and it all seemed to be happening so fast, but he told me that he had given his bags and the rest of his money (maybe he said $5,000?) to a cabby who offered to put it in a locker at the Greyhound bus station downtown for safekeeping, and who left his name and number on a suspicious-enough-looking piece of paper.
Before too long a second guy, a stand-up sort, approached us and offered to help. He agreed with me that the Caribbean dude had been hustled and suggested that we three go to a nearby church for help and to figure out what to do. The Caribbean dude protested, however, determined to catch up with the cabby and retrieve his money and things. Instead he asked me if I would hold the rest of his money for him (because he didn’t want it to be taken again, and it would be safe with an honest guy like me). The other guy agreed to this.
The scam worked because the Caribbean dude made me think that he was even greener than I was, and (I’m embarrassed to admit) because being left with all that money was so tempting to me. He insisted that I put his money with mine, which was a not-so-mere couple of hundred bucks for me at the time. He wrapped up my money along with his in a white handkerchief and “demonstrated” how I should keep it tucked away safely in my breast pocket. After he left, the other guy, still nervous and concerned, insisted on locating that church, which, he was sure, was around the corner, and after a while he took off, saying that he’d be right back.
I waited for nearly an hour, a little excited that all the money would be mine, until the light finally went on, and I opened the hanky to find a thick wad of newspaper scraps.
* * *
Stars Café was an old-timers’ club located at 125th and 8th. It used to be the club next to the Apollo Theater, where the celebrities hung out after a show or “Amateur Night.” I waited tables there every Friday and Saturday night and made enough money to pay my rent and buy my books. (I blew the rest on drinks.)
The club was owned by a tough ex-cop named Hal, who kept a Dirty Harry-sized gun stuck in his waist and who always wore his blazer open. Somebody told me that Hal was the cop who had stopped that crazy lady from stabbing Martin Luther King to death.
When I walked in I was greeted by the manager, who was also the hostess and Hal’s mistress. She was Puerto Rican and her name was Lizzie, and you knew from looking at her that she was once a great beauty.
“You okay, kid?”
“I’m okay. Last night before school starts.”
One of the things that I liked about Stars was that I was the “kid” there. Almost
everybody called me that, and Lizzie often treated me like hers.
“You drinkin’ Miller, kid?”
“Yeah, dat’s what he’ drinkin’. You know that cheap bastard ain’t payin’ for nuttin’ else!”
Beej was my ‘second favorite person’ there, and she was always breaking my face.
“What’s up, Soupbowl?”
“Last day of vacation.”
“Good. Y’all kids need to have y’all bad asses back in school. You gittin’ drunk tonight?”
“You gittin’ drunk, nigguh! You gon’ spend some of that money tonight. You one cheap-ass bastard, Soup!”
She made me some kind of rum drink and then set it on fire. I blew out the flames and had a notion to gulp it down, but she slapped away my hand.
“Tryin’ to burn your lips off? Want Lizzie get mad at me?!”
I sat drinking with Beej for a while, indeed getting drunk as she made me a couple more of those rum drinks and kept me chasing them with Millers. She was very proud and kept saying to the others at the bar, “I’m gittin’ his ass drunk tonight!”
It was quiet at Stars that night. Hal had already sent home the band, along with the everyday waitress named Ariel (whom I shared the floor with on the weekends). Some of the old-timers were still there, but I really did not know them as they usually didn’t talk with me. I knew it was because I was young and a part of what I heard one refer to as that “hip-hop nonsense.”
In fact, one afternoon a young cat (a cat younger than me) came in, cap tipped and pants sagging, and Hal, after first demanding that he remove his hat and then derisively shouting at him to pull up his pants, refused to serve him a drink even after he showed his ID. A while later the dude came back with, like, a Samurai sword and slammed it down on the bar:
“So, wut up now?!”
Ha! Every single one of those old-timers at the bar had heat, and all you heard for a moment was: click-clack, click-clack, click-clack!
Dude bolted and those mean OGs cracked up.
I made small talk with Hal and Lizzie, who argued playfully about whose memory was worse.
“You old!” Lizzie concluded with a sweet chuckle, and that was that.
* * *
Things turned when my “favorite person” there, the musician Afi Camara, showed up and took the seat next to mine at the bar. Afi possessed enormous style and talent. He was a real ladies’ man, and I was, frankly, in awe of him. I told Ariel one night when we were working that he was my hero, “—my absolute favorite person in the whole world,” and apparently she told him because he asked Lizzie if I was gay or something.
When I offered to pay for his drink, Beej nearly fell out.
“Spending money tonight, huh?” she cackled and brought beers to Afi and me.
“You a Miller man, huh?”
I knew he was teasing me a little. He drank Guinness Stout.
“You playing anywhere?”
“We’ goin’ to Japan tomorrow,” he offered nonchalantly.
“Wow, that’s great. You been before?”
“Nope. First time.”
“That sounds really great.”
I had once offended Afi by asking him if he’d ever read Ishmael Reed. He responded sharply, insisting that he’d “scored” Reed’s work. I’d never met or even imagined anyone like him, elegant and brilliant and Black—that is, steeped in black cultural vernacular and style—and I’d hope to turn out just like him.
He made it easy for me by talking some about his other travels, and I did my best to keep my mouth shut, not to mess it up by talking too much about myself. When I finally couldn’t resist a complaint about the lack of excitement in my life, he offered his support by saying: “You get your butt kicked a lot at your age.”
Because I was drunk, Lizzie insisted that I not walk among the “bums” in Morningside Park to get home, and knowing that I would have because of how cheap she presumed I was, she stuffed me into a cab.
Still pretty drunk and slightly disoriented when I got home, it took me a moment to notice the lump in my bed.
“This is okay, right?”
“Yup,” I responded with Afi in mind.
“It’s just… I was confused. I didn’t know where to go.”
“Nothing. I met this guy in Mexico, a bullfighter. Well, he was training to be a bullfighter. His father was a bullfighter. Anyway, we had a thing for a while, and then I met his friend, and ‘we’ really hit it off. But then this big fat Mexican lady threatened to kill me with a knife, and then I heard that they had tried to kill each other, and Arcard (the bullfighter) was hurt really bad. Toni’s not back yet, and I didn’t want to sleep in the apartment alone.
“You love me, don’t you, Droopy Soupy?”
Damn alcohol! But what was up with Vee? We never talked like that. I had thought it was against the rules. I had had a notion then to call her “Brett” (in honor of Hemingway’s bullfighter-loving heroine), but she would have accused me of “trifling” with her, as I sometimes did. So instead I cradled her in my arms and (I’m a little embarrassed to admit) sang the Cowardly Lion’s song from The Wiz, which I usually sang to myself during difficult times: “…in your own way, be a lion!”
I don’t remember either of us falling asleep.